Hector Cage sat alone in a padded room. “Shut up,” he growled, clamping his hands over his ears. “Shut up!” He closed his eyes and ground his teeth together.
“If I hear one more word—one more word—I’m going to scream,” he said.
The door opened. Dr. Lopez stepped into the room to find his patient howling at the ceiling. “Hector!” he said sharply. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve told you and told you and told you, but you won’t listen!”
Dr. Lopez knelt next to the insane man.
“I’m not insane!” screamed Hector, scrambling away from the psychiatrist.
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t. He did.”
The psychiatrist frowned. Hector was getting worse.
The madman giggled hysterically. “Of course I’m getting worse. Weeks in a padded room will do that to anybody. You try living here and see how you like it.”
Dr. Lopez extracted some coins, a pen, and a ring of keys from his pants pocket. After placing the pen behind his ear, he stuffed the rest back into his pocket and searched his coat for a notebook. He found one wedged behind his phone, and carefully fished it out.
Hector had not taken his hands from his eyes.
“You think I’m crazy,” he babbled, “but I can prove the Narrator exists. He said what you have in your pockets. Coins and keys, in your pants pocket. I didn’t look. I swear. He told me.”
Dr. Lopez shrugged. “Nobody said anything, Hector,” he said, speaking in the gentle, condescending tone usually reserved for children. “Are you sure you weren’t peeking through your fingers?”
“Phone,” murmured Hector. “In your coat pocket. I didn’t see it. You never took it out.”
The psychiatrist raised his eyebrows. “You’re a good guesser, Hector. I’m impressed.”
“Didn’t guess,” insisted Hector, shaking his head violently. “Narrator said it was there in your pocket.”
“So the Narrator talks to you,” said Dr. Lopez, taking the pen from behind his ear. He opened the notebook to a blank sheet.
“Not to me,” said Hector. “He narrates the story.”
“This story. The story in which we’re characters. I hear him narrating.”
“That reminds me of Shakespeare,” said Dr. Lopez, trying to change the subject. “Shakespeare wrote, ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.’ Tell me, Hector, have you ever read Shakespeare?”
The psychiatrist disliked Shakespeare, but wanted to steer conversation toward a neutral subject. The patient’s delusions were upsetting him. Hector needed to calm down.
“I do not,” said Hector, sulking. “I have every reason to be upset. Changing the subject won’t change that.”
Dr. Lopez felt an uncomfortable tightness in his chest. Damned heart problems. Why did Hector insist on being so difficult? To keep himself calm, the psychiatrist began sketching in his notebook. A butterfly was the most peaceful thing he could think of. Very slowly and deliberately, he drew a blue morpho in a corner of his notepaper.
“Very slowly and deliberately,” intoned Hector, whose eyes were still shut, “you drew a blue morpho in a corner of your notepaper. The heck is a blue morpho? Some kinda butterfly? Whatever it is, you drew it.”
The psychiatrist shuddered. “Another good guess. You’re good at guessing, Hector.”
“Lucky me,” said Hector.
Dr. Lopez fought to keep his temper. “Hector, I’m going to be honest. I don’t feel well today, and I’m not in the mood for games. I want to help you, but you’ve got to help me. You can start by—”
He stopped for breath, and realized how much the pain in his chest had grown.
“We’re just characters in a story,” said Hector. “You know it, don’t you? I think you just don’t want our story to end. You know that when it does, we won’t exist anymore, except in the memory of the reader.”
Breathing deeply, Dr. Lopez forced himself to calm down. “That’s an interesting idea, Hector, but I don’t believe it’s true.”
“Of course,” mused his patient, “our quaint little story might be a tragedy. It sure isn’t a comedy—hell, do you feel like laughing? Today’s parable might end in our deaths. Even if it doesn’t, we’ll end when it does. We’re screwed either way. The Author will get bored with us, make some new characters, get bored with them, and continue the morbid cycle of creation and abandonment, like a god with ADHD.”
The psychiatrist began to write with short, jerky strokes. The pain in his chest refused to go away.
“Tell me, Hector, what’s the difference between the Author and the Narrator?”
“They’re the same,” said Hector, as if explaining to a toddler that two and two made four. “Use your head, won’t you? Use it while you still can.”
Holding the notebook out of Hector’s sight, Dr. Lopez scribbled the date and the following words:
Patient: Hector Cage. Condition worsening. Still hearing voices. Metafictional delusion persists. Morbidly preoccupied with death and nonexistence—experiencing suicidal ideation? Keep on self-harm watch in Personal Safety Room. Probable diagnoses: depression, schizophrenia
“I do not have schizophrenia!” yelled Hector. “You’ve locked up the only sane man on Earth, and schizophrenia is your best diagnosis? And you think I’m crazy!” He pounded the wall with his fist, and then threw himself on the floor: a shattered wreck.
“I’m not a shattered wreck,” he sobbed to the ceiling.
Dr. Lopez took a few deep breaths. He felt very sick. “Listen, Hector,” he said as gently as he could. “You and I, we’re going to work through this. We’re going to—to—”
He stopped. The pain in his chest had spiked. He fought to breathe, and felt himself blacking out.
Hector sat up. “I guess this is a tragedy,” he said, suddenly calm. “Rough luck.”
Dr. Lopez crumpled to the floor.
Hector stood, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. “I’ll get someone,” he sniffled. “Not that it matters.” He stumbled to the door and shouted for help. A nurse came running, and gasped at the sight of the psychiatrist sprawled over the padded floor.
“What did you do?!” she demanded.
“I told the truth,” said Hector. “Better call some help, hadn’t you? There’s a phone in his coat pocket.”
With that, he took off down the hallway.
Ten minutes later, Dr. Lopez was on his way to the emergency room. Nurses and aides gathered in the hallway, chattering with the euphoria of tragedy averted. “You’re a hero, Liz!” cried an assistant, hugging the nurse who called the ambulance. “You saved his life! Dr. Lopez would have died if you hadn’t found him in time.”
“His patient yelled for help,” said the nurse. “The guy ran off in the hubbub. They’re looking for him now, but I kinda hope he gets away. He saved Dr. Lopez—how bad can the guy be?”
“Not so bad, I guess,” replied Hector Cage from beneath a pine tree half a mile down the road. He sat in tall grass, breathing heavily, chewing a clover blossom, and looking up at the big blue sky.
“It’s funny how the madmen are the ones with a grip on reality,” he said. “Poor old Noah and Socrates and Jesus, and all those Minor Prophets. All crazy. Never mind. It doesn’t matter. I’m alive and free, free, free as a bird. No more padded rooms. Just I and the sky and the world at my fingertips.”
Hector spat out his clover, wiped his eyes, and closed them in tired resignation.
“Such a pity I won’t get to enjoy it.”
I wrote this one back in college, around five years ago. Those days are a brightly-colored blur. I don’t remember much about this story—I don’t remember much of anything, really—but I recall pondering the idea that a totally self-aware fictional character would probably be locked up as a lunatic.
Think about it. If your neighbor or coworker told you we were all just characters in someone’s story, would you believe her? I wouldn’t. In fact, I’d nope out of there as quickly as possible, and avoid all eye contact with that person in future.
I rescued this story from my personal archive: a dismal place, littered with false starts and abandoned ideas from high school and college. This story seemed salvageable, so I updated and edited it, because recycling is good for the environment. Planet Earth is the only one we’ve got, after all.